Rare film tells story of Yup’ik children creating incredible artwork

Student artists in Eek in 1970 create drawings in Mr. Paul Forrer's art class. A film was made about this program entitled The Children of Eek and Thier Art.

by K.J. Lincoln

Back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a young couple named Paul and Eloise Forrer taught in the village of Eek at the BIA School. Mr. Forrer began an arts program during the evenings and on weekends for the children who were interested in drawing and creating art.

About 1970 a crew filmed some of the students and their art work.

The film is entitled The Children of Eek and Their Art.

The approximately 17 minute long motion picture was originally produced as a 16 mm film but has now been digitized by the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s Media Center through the work of Timothy Miller, a media archivist.

The film depicts examples of the stunning art pieces created by the students.

This is the second rare Yup’ik film that LKSD digitized this year, one which also survived the Kilbuck fire of November 3, 2015.

In the early morning hours of November 3, 2015, a fire burned down the old Kilbuck Elementary School where the LKSD Media Center was housed. The wing where the media archives was kept was left intact but the fire displaced Ayaprun Elitnaurvik and Kuskokwim Learning Academy students who went to school there.

The Anchorage museum is the repository currently holding the Forrer Collection. It contains photographs, manuscripts, clippings and other items that Paul and Eloise collected during their tenure in Alaska. This collection also contains some of the original student artwork along with a digitized copy of the film Children of Eek and Their Art.

The film is narrated all in English. The introduction shows an aerial view of the village from a small plane landing followed by some shots of the students’ artwork, a close up of lady sewing an Eskimo doll, a shot of the church, a girl, the school’s BIA sign by the door, a lone wooden boat in the river, a house, more art, kids playing basketball, the river, a boy piggybacking another boy on the boardwalk, and a boy in deep thought. The opening scenes end with the boardwalk and the homes in Eek.

“Paul Forrer is the teacher who helped this art become a reality,” says the narrator. “When Forrer first arrived in Eek he discovered that the children liked to write and make drawings from block letters such as a house from an M or a bush from an H. As Forrer explains it, the program began four years ago when the children showed an interest in handwriting which gradually led to a successful art program.”

Mr. Forrer taught his art students how to sign their pieces with their signatures – artfully, but simply and direct, said the film.

“Although the children of Eek are eager and prolific in their artwork, Forrer explains the art classes are entirely separate from their regular school classes. As he puts it, it’s sort of a drop in drop out affair. It is not a part of his regular program at all. Sometimes it is done in the evenings or on the weekends whenever someone gets a good idea. All the children do not stay in his program, some of them drop out and permanently,” the narrator continues. “If they drop in again it is voluntary and because they want to. And then Forrer says it’s all a very positive thing. As for inspiration, Forrer says the entire history of art and its appreciation has been used to help give the children a universal view of art. They take much of their inspiration from landscapes, from skies, sunsets, frost patterns on windows, shadows, reflections on glass, and from wax flowers, and actually sometimes by using another boy or girl as a sitting figure. Without this inspiration Forrer feels the art program would be stillborn – that they need this inspiration.”

The compositions created by the children are astoundingly beautiful.

“If a child happens to like … a theme … it can be ramified into hundreds of original permutations producing sometimes exceedingly beautiful exhibit material. Forrer says that art is really the most natural of impulses, it is also the greatest relief next to physical exercise from the boredom of traditional classroom routine.” This concludes the first 5 minutes of the film.

In the next scenes there are approximately 7 children working away on their art. They are using oil pastels and are focused and engaged in their work. Some are drawing floral stills and some are doing portraits. They range in age from 10-15 years. Mr. Forrer can be seen talking with his wife Eloise who is smiling. The kids are concentrating and creating art without hesitation.

At the time the film was shot, Eek had a population of approximately 200. Of the 58 children in school that year, 9-10 were active in Mr. Forrer’s graphic arts program.

“As with all artists, the children of Eek have developed their own individual styles and favorite subject matters. Little Mikey, his forte is bridges and cities which he has been doing in crayolas, ink and pencils for a number of years. Alice and Emma prefer faces and they do them readily and instantly. For floral work the children have been using wax flowers initially to start them. Once they got the basic idea of the bouquet or floral arrangement then they began to work directly from their imaginations and have achieved tremendously original effects,” state the narrator. “As for instruction, Paul Forrer would say: Mikey, why don’t you make a composition of flowers. And that’s all there is to it.”

Forrer was asked how these young people possessed such unique talent, said the narrator.

“He replied that their natural talent is no more natural or talent than any boy or girl or even you or I have. He believes it is very ordinary and widespread everywhere. It is just that it has never been developed.”

The film credits at the end say that the narration was done by Wayne Johnson, photography by Justin Kelley, and the commercial film productions are by BP Alaska.

The Forrer Collection at the Anchorage Museum also contains newspaper clippings about the impact of the children of Eek’s amazing art and Mr. Forrer’s program. Some of the headlines include “Eek collection an artistic miracle” Daily Astorian, Sept. 19, 1975; “Eek children exhibit sophisticated art” Anchorage Daily Times, April 10, 1969; “Children’s art wins admiration” Anchorage Times, no date; “Forers (sic) help Eek children see art with an open eye” Anchorage Times, no date; and “Eek technique is exciting” Anchorage Daily Times, June 8, 1970.

The Forrers both passed away in 2009 in Oregon, leaving a lasting legacy and the gift of art with the children of Eek.